Soppy, yes, but the heartfelt cheer as Nick Henderson led his marvellous chaser into Kempton's winners' enclosure on Saturday was the least either of them deserved. Henderson had shown patience and faith throughout Remittance Man's 15-month absence with a tendon injury. He was vindicated when the former two- mile champion, jumping with trademark excellence, beat Deep Sensation by three and a half lengths at something less than full stretch.
Racing followers always find affection for a returning champion, but have learned to lower their expectations too. On Saturday's evidence, though, Remittance Man will go to Cheltenham with every chance of winning his second Champion Chase, and to some extent draw a veil over Deep Sensation's success in his absence last year (his name has never sat comfortably alongside such as Badsworth Boy and Pearlyman).
A measure of Remittance Man's performance was that a normally hard-nosed bookie's rep broke off from calculating percentages and profit margins to describe it as 'poetry in motion'. When the post-race rejigging was over, Remittance Man was favourite for the Champion Chase in every book, at odds ranging from 11-4 (Ladbrokes) down to 9-4 (Hills). The latter's list makes Viking Flagship (4-1), Sybillin (5-1), Travado (5-1) and Deep Sensation (8-1) his most serious rivals.
'It was a bit of a relief to get it all over with,' Henderson said yesterday. 'He's not a flashy horse at home and you never quite know where you stand with him, so you just worry whether it all still works. It was a good thing that Richard (Dunwoody) had to sit down and ride him out, to make him quicken up and use himself. It was all perfect.'
Anyone who wants to back against Remittance Man at Cheltenham (or had already backed against him before Saturday) will clutch at the old dictum that horses returning from a long absence tend to run well first time, and badly the second. 'It's happened before, I agree,' Henderson said, 'but he was pretty straight yesterday. I think it might happen, especially if you're not quite fit first time, but he was very fit and I wouldn't be very worried about that.'
The memory of how Remittance Man flew the open ditches is one to cling to during the fortnight of pre-Festival purdah which almost all of the country's worthwhile jumpers will now enter. Remember too the ease with which Master Oats, having only his eighth outing, galloped away from Moorcroft Boy in the Greenalls Gold Cup. Ladbrokes cut him to 10-1 for the Grand National (from 40-1) as a result, but Kim Bailey's gelding will not even leave the yard on 9 April if the going at Aintree is unsuitable. 'He has to have soft ground,' Tracey Bailey, the trainer's wife, said yesterday. 'He's very inexperienced and the National could come a year too soon, but then again next year he'll get heaps of weight. But if the ground dries up, the decision's made for us.'
That Master Oats had the chance to run at all is thanks to the British Horseracing Board's swift action to move the Greenalls to Kempton after the abandonment of Haydock. Praiseworthy too was the Board's decision last week to abandon the remainder of the all-weather jumps programme after an abnormal number of fatalities (though the death which finally prompted it could have happened on any course in the country). In the bad old days of the Jockey Club, action at such speed would have turned them all green with motion sickness.
But while few will miss the all-weather cards, the Board must ensure that their cancellation is not seen as setting a precedent. Dovetailed with the triumphs at Kempton were the potentially fatal falls of Young Hustler and Lord Relic. At the Festival, horses will almost certainly die. It has always been inevitable. If the nation's mood continues to change, it may one day prove indefensible.
Today's card at Leicester has been abandoned due to waterlogging. Tomorrow's fixtures at Hexham and Nottingham are also in doubt due to snow and waterlogging respectively. Worcester on Wednesday is threatened by flooding from the River Severn.
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